NORTH PORT, Fla. — Standing beyond the center field fence at CoolToday Park, toward the backfields, Charlie Morton pointed up to a mural of Braves legend Eddie Mathews. The ballpark is littered with these, each honoring one of the organization’s beloved former players, and Morton used them in reference to Freddie Freeman.
Freeman, the pitcher said, can one day be one of those guys.
“If he isn’t there already, he spends a few more years here and finishes his career here, he’s going to be one of those guys,” Morton said. “He’s going to be one of the guys with his number retired and a Braves legend – not to say he’s not already, because I think he is.”
The Braves on Sunday reported to camp. Morton, Ian Anderson and other pitchers threw bullpen sessions. Outfielders Ronald Acuña Jr. and Cristian Pache parked their gold SUVs in the players’ parking lot and walked into the clubhouse together. Reliever Kirby Yates, who is new to the team, asked reporters where he could find the clubhouse.
Due to the quick turnaround after the lockout ended, manager Brian Snitker knew players would be in, out and everywhere around the complex.
The one who did not show: Freeman.
He is a free agent who, as of late Sunday afternoon, had yet to sign a deal. The Braves are defending World Series champions who are excited to be back, but Freeman’s situation looms. The Braves and Freeman did not agree to an extension prior to Freeman hitting free agency, so Atlanta instead faces the possibility that its beloved franchise player departs to play for another club for the first time in his career.
Morton was insightful and nuanced when speaking about Freeman’s situation. Of course, the Braves would love him back. But Morton took a more personal route and said he feels Freeman deserves to dictate where he goes instead of feeling like the decision was made for him.
He later explained that thought by saying this: “I hope Freddie knows that the Braves did what they could to sign him back. Not necessarily what they had to do to sign him back, but there was a concerted effort to sign him back, it was in fairness, and it was in a genuine desire to bring him back, and that he knows that.”
When MLB and the MLBPA came to an agreement and the lockout ended, Snitker texted Freeman. He asked how the first baseman’s family was doing. The manager insisted the two didn’t touch on any business.
“He’s going to be a good friend the rest of my life,” Snitker said. “Regardless of what happens professionally, I love the guy.”
Snitker said the Braves would go about business as usual while Freeman’s situation plays out. They have no choice. Monday marks the club’s first official workout of camp.
“He's going to be a good friend the rest of my life. Regardless of what happens professionally, I love the guy."
- Braves manager Brian Snitker, on free agent Freddie Freeman
Left-hander Tyler Matzek described Freeman as the “guy that you just look to (for) how you go about your daily business. Freeman, Matzek added, is professional, leads by example and has influenced the club’s young position players.
Months ago, the Braves won the World Series. They celebrated at a parade and had months to soak it all in before spring training. Their fans have been on cloud nine the entire time.
But Sunday represented Braves fans’ worst nightmare: On report day, No. 5 didn’t arrive in North Port with the rest of his teammates to begin a season in which they hope to repeat as champions.
“I want to just run this thing back,” Matzek said, “and I think he’s a core part of the team.”